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Parashat Yitro: The Coda of the Ten Commandments by Yaakov Bieler

February 9, 2012 by  
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An oddity concerning the structure of the Parasha.

The conclusion of Parashat Yitro is curiously anti-climactic, at least at first glance. After the emotional drama of the reuniting of Moshe with his family (Shemot 18:1-12), the astute recommendations of Yitro regarding the most efficient manner by which to administer the massive encampment (18:13-26), painstaking preparations for the receiving of the Tora (Chapt. 19), and the powerful proclamation of the Ten Commandments (20:1-18), there follow a) what appear to be a reiteration of the prohibition of idolatry (18:19-20) and b) details concerning the construction of an altar upon which to offer sacrifices (18:21-23). While idolatry is certainly a central prohibition in Judaism, the Ten Commandments themselves (20:3-5) constitute a decisive statement to that effect, including a specific reference to the prohibition against the creation of idols in 20:4. What is the necessity for mentioning once again in 20:20 that silver and golden gods are not to be fabricated by the Jews? And as far as the verses dealing with altars for sacrifices are concerned (20:21-23), wouldn’t they be more properly situated in Parashiot Teruma (27:1 ff.), VaYakhel (35:15-16; 37:25-38:7), and/or in the book of VaYikra?

Connecting the reiteration of the prohibition against constructing idols with that which immediately precedes it.

Although there does not appear to be a direct connection between the Ten Commandments themselves and these final directives regarding idolatry and sacrificial worship, NeTziV, in his commentary HaEmek Davar, suggests that verses 20:19-23 are a direct extension of the interchange between Moshe and the people recorded in the verses that follow immediately upon the heels of the Ten Commandments, verses 15-18. At the conclusion of  the intentionally  intimidating Sinaitic Revelation[1] —Moshe tells the people in 20:17 that HaShem has Given the Tora in this manner in order to instill the Fear of Heaven within them (see the essay on Parashat Yitro   at http://text.rcarabbis.org/parshat-yitro-worshipping-god-via-dualing-human-emotions-by-yaakov-bieler/ )—the Jews request that Moshe from now on serve as an intermediary between themselves and God. After assuring the people that HaShem will be only indirectly Conveying His Commands in the future rather than replicating what took place on Sinai when each member of the Jewish people was a prophet in his/her own right,[2] Moshe proceeds to enter the thick fog at the top of the mountain to begin his forty days of being Instructed by HaShem regarding the details of the Tora (24:18), which he in turn will teach the people once he descends. However just before he leaves them under the supervision of Aharon and Chur (24:14), Moshe attempts to calm the people’s trepidation by telling them that although they may have feared for their lives during their close encounter with HaShem (20:15), they must keep in mind that they did in the end survive the experience (20:18), demonstrating that God is Capable of fine-tuning His Revelation in such a way that it will not prove fatal for human recipients of Divine Messages.[3]   Consequently, images, statues and idols, not necessarily meant to be worshipped in their own rights, but rather that the people may think they need to serve as intermediaries between themselves and the awesome power of the Divine, will never be required for the proper worship of HaShem.

The fabrication and worship of the Golden Calf could be understood as a direct violation of the final section of Yitro.

NeTzIV is clearly applying RaMBaN’s interpretation on Shemot 32:1 for why the Golden Calf is constructed with Aharon’s active assistance (32:2, 5).

…They did not want the calf to be for them in place of a god who kills and makes alive, whom they would take upon themselves to serve as a deity; instead they wanted something IN PLACE OF Moshe to show them the way. And this was the apology of Aharon (to Moshe, 32:23) “They merely told me that I should make them ‘elohim’ that would go before them IN YOUR PLACE, my lord, because they did not know what had happened to you and whether you would return or not”…[4]

The people thought that they needed an intermediary. And if Moshe could not any longer serve in this capacity, then they would have to construct an entity that could.

A possible earlier manifestation of the human need for intermediaries between people and the Divine.

                The attraction of creating intermediaries in order to facilitate the worshipping of an abstract God, devoid of all bodily and otherwise tangible physical representations can be understood as a manner of thinking that ultimately serves as the basis for the origins of idolatry. Adam, his contemporaries and those who immediately came after him, even the villainous Nachash (serpent) and Kain, were all monotheists,[5] and, according to the Tora accounts, interacted with the classical Jewish pure conception of the Divine. However, the biblical text suggests that a radical change occurred during the time of Enosh, Adam and Eve’s grandson (Beraishit 4:26), indicated by the phrase “…Az Huchal LiKro BeShem HaShem” (then it was begun to call on the Name of God). While the Midrashim quoted by RaShI contend that the phrase marks the beginning of actual polytheism, whereby all sorts of natural objects were deified, i.e., “called by the Name of God”, it is also possible that the verse could be referring to an intermediary stage whereby HaShem was worshipped by means of these various parts of Creation cast in the role of intermediaries. By worshipping aspects of HaShem’s Creation, people might think that HaShem Himself Becomes more accessible, more immediate rather than transcendent, in an individual’s everyday life.

A more extended discussion of the early role of intermediaries in the evolution of idolatry.

RaMBaM, in the beginning of his analysis of idolatry (Mishna Tora, Hilchot Avoda Zora 1:1-2)[6] similarly contends that originally temples dedicated to major components of Creation such as the sun and the moon, were intended to merely provide a focal point for those that wished to worship HaShem, but who found themselves disconcerted by their inability to see or feel any tangible representation of Him. Consequently, they decided that worshipping HaShem by means of His Creation would be a better way to approach the Divine and develop a relationship with Him. Unfortunately, over time, the “means” turned into “ends” and objects of devotion such as the sun and moon began to be worshipped as gods in their own rights.

Distinguishing between the additional prohibition against constructing idols, on the one hand, and the recommended form of altar, on the other.

Yet even if we accept NeTzIV’s evocative insight that the Sinai experience and subsequent discussion between Moshe and the Jewish people  was intended to convey the message that intermediaries in the worship of HaShem were not only unnecessary, but even potentially dangerous with respect to the possibility that they become transformed into a type of idolatry,  one might still wonder what role is played by the next three verses dealing with altars (Shemot 20:21-3) which in turn advance the cause of altars associated with dirt, restrict the means by which stones intended for an altar can be shaped, and delineating modest behavior as an ideal when one is making use of such altars.

As can be expected, NeTzIV has an explanation for the Parasha’s discussion of altars at this point as well. The concern with the inappropriateness of employing intermediaries as a means of assisting man in relating to HaShem, nevertheless reflects a perceived human desire to find favor in God’s Eyes. Therefore, the verses following HaShem’s Prohibition against the utilization of silver and gold statues serves as the positive confirmation of what man SHOULD do when striving to relate to the Divine to address the aforementioned admirable human desire, i.e., offer sacrifices in a simple context in order to reach out to and establish a modicum of contact with HaShem. The commentator references what he has written earlier, concerning Beraishit 35:1 :

“And Elokim said to Yaakov: Rise and go up to Beit Eil ‘VeShev Sham’ (and dwell there) and MAKE THERE AN ALTAR TO HASHEM Who Appeared to you when you were fleeing from before Eisav, your brother.”

NeTZIV: …Since Yaakov as soon as he reached Beit Eil, should have immediately fulfilled the vow[7] that he had earlier made (Beraishit 28:22) to erect a “Matzeiva” (monument consisting of a single stone) which would constitute an act of thanksgiving for all that HaShem had Done for him in the past, as well as to tithe all that he had in order to offer sacrifices.

But God Informs him that before Yaakov goes about fulfilling what he has vowed to do in the past, he must pray concerning the problems confronting him in the immediate present.

For this reason He Said to him, “And dwell there”—don’t hurry to erect the single-stone monument (and then move on with your travels), but rather stay there for an extended period of time…

The commentator proceeds to point out that as opposed to “Matzeivot” (monuments) which served as responses to past favors and positive experiences, “Mizbachot” (altars) are associated with prayer for the resolution of a current situation. Examples of the latter appear in the stories of Avraham and Yaakov in Beraishit 13:4; 21:33 and 35:1.

Hypothesizing about the basis for NeTzIV’s distinction between Matzeivot and Mizbachot.

                While NeTzIV does not himself suggest an explanation for why a certain form of sacrificial platform is linked to a particular emotional spiritual stance—“Hoda’ah” (thanksgiving) vs. “Bakasha” (supplication)—I would suggest that the intrinsic difference between these two states of mind is the quality and quantity of the preparations or lack thereof required in order for a person to properly and appropriately relate to HaShem in each of these modes. The expression of thanksgiving for an event(s) that has already taken place requires nothing more than briefly reflecting on what has transpired and how this outcome has been truly beneficial. Consequently, picking a single stone, erecting it and marking it all require relatively little preparation and industriousness. On the other hand, beseeching HaShem to redeem a person from his/her difficulties appears to require far more introspection—“Am I worthy? What can I do to make myself deserving?”—careful choice of means of expression—“What should/can I say?”—frequent repetition of the request—“How often must I continue to plead my case?—as well as the recognition that HaShem may Choose not to respond in the manner that we desire—“Perhaps what I think is the best solution really isn’t!” Such a complex process is better represented by building an altar composed of many stones that have to be gathered, arranged and stabilized, before one can proceed to actually offer the required sacrifices. By extension, if the altar is to be built of “Adama” (dirt, earth) (20:20),[8] it might require an even more tedious process in order to create such a structure—stones at least have the capability of maintaining their own shape which is not necessarily the case with dirt; a further consideration is the greater susceptibility of a dirt altar to the constant erosion that inevitably results from exposure to the elements, which would not be as much of a factor when dealing with a stone altar. Consequently, such a supplication might not only require challenging preparation, but it is likely that these preparations will have to be undergone again and again, each time from “scratch” when yet another request is to be made of HaShem. A final variable that is suggested by the verses at the end of Parashat Yitro is in the event that one uses stone,[9] can such material be hewn or not. An altar that is built of stones that have been carefully shaped by metal instruments is likely to be more stable, and more easily constructed, than one that relies upon boulders in their natural state. 

Connecting the symbolism of different types of altars and the contemporary form of prayer.

                The NeTzIV’s conception of different prerequisites for Tefillot of different types calls to mind the evocative image in the Mishna on Berachot 30b:

One should not stand to pray unless one has a seriousness of purpose.

The early pietists would wait an hour and only then engage in prayer, in order that they would be able to direct their thoughts to their Father in Heaven…

Are we to assume that a literal “hour” is necessary for a “Bakasha” to even be minimally effective? Or is even more time needed for “Bakasha” and these individuals were trying to focus their minds so that they can properly give thanks to HaShem for His Goodness and Kindness?[10]   

Tora study and Minyan as preparations to make prayer affective.

Finally, NeTzIV points out that a phrase in one of these last verses in Yitro provides a principle for prayer that applies even to periods of Jewish history devoid of altars altogether, (20:20) “…In every place that I Mention My Name, I will Come to you and Bless you.” The commentator suggests that even if there is no altar per se in a particular location, nevertheless the qualities of particular places in their own right can make the individuals inhabiting them worthy of having HaShem’s Blessings conferred upon them.  One manner in which a place can be considered one in which God’s Name is mentioned is if Tora is studied there. NeTzIV cites Tamid 32b as a possible proof text:

R. Chiya taught: Whomever engages in Tora study at night, the Divine Presence is there with him, as it is stated (Eicha 2:19) “Rise up, cry out in the night; at the beginning of the night watches pour out your heart like water before the Face of HaShem.”

The commentator admits, however, that the more likely obvious interpretation of the phrase is that it is referring to a place to which HaShem has Given permission that His Name be mentioned, i.e., a place in which a Minyan is found. This time the proof text is Megilla 23b:

Said R. Chiya bar Aba in the name of R. Yochanan: The verse states (VaYikra 22:32) “And I will be Sanctified in the midst of the Children of Israel”—all matters of holiness cannot be recited when there are less than ten present…

In both instances, whether the place is associated with Tora or it is the place in which a Minyan gathers, we are being assured by the verses at the end of Yitro that we should be aspiring to engaging with HaShem ourselves, directly rather than by means of some sort of intermediary. If we prepare properly, if we are careful not to be immodest (Shemot 20:22), if we surround ourselves with means of inspiration, then HaShem Desires that we reach out to Him, He eagerly Awaits our expressions of praise and thanksgiving, as well as our cries for help, lessons originally learned from our seminal encounter with God at Sinai.


[1]Frightening features of the Revelation included: rigorous self-sanctification and purification (19:10-11); the threat of death to anyone who improperly even touches the mountain while HaShem is “upon” it (19:12-13, 21-24); thunder, lightning, thick cloud/fog, and a piercing Shofar blast (19:16, 19); and fire and smoke resembling that rising from a great furnace (19:18).

[2]This essentially is Miriam’s plaint in BaMidbar 12:2, when she accuses her brother of unduly separating himself from the rest of the people. According to Rabbinic tradition, the people had already experienced an intense revelation at the splitting of the Sea of Reeds:

                Yalkut Shimoni, Parshat BeShalach #244.

(Shemot 15:2) “This is my God and I will glorify Him”—R. Eliezer says:…A handmaiden saw at the Sea what Yechezkel and Yeshayahu never saw…

[3]RaMBaM, Mishna Tora, Hilchot Yesodei HaTora 7:6 describes how, with the exception of Moshe, even those who qualify as legitimate prophets, such as Avraham (Beraishit 15:12) and Yaakov (28:17), as opposed to tyros who only by happenstance are present at a Revelatory Event such as the splitting of the Sea or Sinai, experience a sense of being overwhelmed and loss of personal control during each of their encounters with the Divine:

…And what is the difference between the prophecy of Moshe and other prophets?

(a) All other prophets experience prophecy as part of a dream or in a vision, and Moshe when he prophesies is awake and standing…

(b) All other prophets have interchanges with an Angel, and for this reason they experience parables and riddles, whereas Moshe does not encounter an angel…but rather he sees the matter with clarity without parables and riddles…

(c) All other prophets are fearful, confused and disconcerted, while Moshe Rabbeinu experiences none of this…but rather it is comparable to one who converses with his/her friend, just as a person talking to his/her friend does not experience confusion listening to the words of his friend, so Moshe possessed the strength of mind to understand the words of the prophecy and he remained whole in his existential verity.

(d) All of the prophets did not prophecy at any time that they wished, but Moshe was not this way, but rather any time that he wished, the Divine Spirit would Envelop him and prophecy would dwell upon him, and he would have no need to specially concentrate his mind and to prepared for the experience, since he was always focused and prepared and ready like the Serving Angels. For this reason he prophesied whenever he wished…

(e) All of the other prophets, when the spirit of prophecy would be removed from them, they would return to their tents and engage in the physical needs of the body similar to the rest of the people, and for this reason they did not separate from their wives, whereas Moshe never returned to that first tent…and he connected his mind to the Rock of Ages, and the Glory never departed from him forever, and his face emitted rays of light, and he was sanctified like the angels.

If this is what happens to those who train to be prophets—see RaMBaM, Hilchot Yesodei HaTora 7:4—then those who have no prior experience stand to be that much more terrified, even when the Revelation is not accompanied by all of the meteorological and pyrotechnical features that were part of the Sinai event.

[4]While creating a replacement for Moshe may have been the original intent of those constructing the Calf, including Aharon, it is clear from Moshe’s reaction involving the destruction of the Tablets upon which were inscribed the Ten Commandments (32:19) as well as the great numbers of people that were killed in various ways (32:27-28, 35) that the people had transformed the intermediary into an actual object of worship. 32:6 suggests that sacrifices were offered before it and other types of orgiastic activity designed to worship the Calf were carried out just prior to Moshe’s return. RaMBaN acknowledges the fundamental change in intent regarding the role that the Calf was intended to play in his comments to 32:5 :

…There were some people amongst them who intended them (the sacrifices) to be for the Name of the Holy One, blessed Be He, as Aharon had said, but some of them became corrupted and sacrificed them to the calf…

[5]Adam—Beraishit 2:16-17; 3:9-13, 17-19

      Chava—Beraishit 3:13, 16

      Nachash—Beraishit 3:14-15

      Kayin—Beraishit 4:6-7, 9-12, 15

      Chanoch—Beraishit 5:22, 24

      It goes without saying that Noach and Avraham were monotheists, but they were surrounded by idolaters, as probably was Chanoch.

[6] During the times of Enosh, mankind made a great mistake, and the wise men of that generation gave thoughtless counsel. Enosh himself was one of those who erred.

Their mistake was as follows: They said God created stars and spheres with which to control the world. He placed them on high and treated them with honor, making them servants who minister before Him. Accordingly, it is fitting to praise and glorify them and to treat them with honor. [They perceived] this to be the will of God, blessed be He, that they magnify and honor those whom He magnified and honored, just as a king desires that the servants who stand before him be honored. Indeed, doing so is an expression of honor to the king.

After conceiving of this notion, they began to construct temples to the stars and offer sacrifices to them. They would praise and glorify them with words, and prostrate themselves before them, because by doing so, they would – according to their false conception – be fulfilling the will of God.

This was the essence of the worship of false gods, and this was the rationale of those who worshiped them. They would not say that there is no other god except for this star.

This message was conveyed by Jeremiah, who declared (10:7-8): “Who will not fear You, King of the nations, for to You it is fitting. Among all the wise men of the nations and in all their kingdoms, there is none like You. They have one foolish and senseless [notion. They conceive of their] empty teachings as wood;” i.e., all know that You alone are God. Their foolish error consists of conceiving of this emptiness as Your will.

Halacha 2

After many years passed, there arose people – false prophets – who told [their nations] that God had commanded them to say: Serve this star – or all the stars – sacrifice to it, offer libations to it, build a temple for it and make an image of it so that all people – including the women, the children, and the common people – could bow to it.

He would inform them of a form that he had conceived, and tell them that this is the image of the particular star, claiming that this was revealed to him in a prophetic vision. In this manner, the people began to make images in temples, under trees, and on the tops of mountains and hills.

People would gather together and bow down to them and the [false prophets] would say: This image is the source of benefit or harm. It is appropriate to serve it and fear it. Their priests would tell them: This service will enable you to multiply and be successful. Do this and this, or do not do this or this.

Subsequently, other deceivers arose and declared that a specific star, sphere, or angel had spoken to them and commanded them: Serve me in this manner. He would then relate a mode of service [telling them:] Do this, do not do this.

Thus, these practices spread throughout the world. People would serve images with strange practices – one more distorted than the other – offer sacrifices to them, and bow down to them. As the years passed, [God's] glorious and awesome name was forgotten by the entire population. [It was no longer part of] their speech or thought, and they no longer knew Him. Thus, all the common people, the women, and the children would know only the image of wood or stone and the temples of stone to which they were trained from their childhood to bow down and serve, and in whose name they swore.

The wise men among them would think that there is no God other than the stars and spheres for whose sake, and in resemblance of which, they had made these images. The Eternal Rock was not recognized or known by anyone in the world, with the exception of a [few] individuals: for example, Chanoch, Metushelach, Noach, Shem, and Ever. The world continued in this fashion until the pillar of the world – the Patriarch Abraham – was born.

[7]Moshe’s very life is threatened by HaShem in Shemot 4:24 and Rabbinic sources (see e.g., RaShI on 4:24) attribute the danger to Moshe not having immediately seen to the circumcision of his newborn son once he had the opportunity to do so. Consequently, Yaakov would be expected to not delay in fulfilling the vow that he undertook so many years earlier, had HaShem not specifically Instructed him to first turn his attention to another matter.

[8]RaShI mentions that according to some Rabbinic authorities, the intent of the verse is that the hollow copper altar upon which animals would be offered in the Tabernacle, had to be filled with dirt. Since the verses dealing with altars at the end of Yitro do not deal with altars constructed of metal, it would appear that such an approach, even if correct Halachically, is less appropriate contextually. Ibn Ezra comments that while the copper altar may have been weighted down, attached to the ground by filling its empty space with dirt, it still was known as “Mizbaiach HaNechoshet” (the copper altar) rather than “Mizbaiach Adama” (the dirt altar).

[9] Perhaps one finds himself in a place where the requisite type and quantity of dirt is not available.

[10]Note that in our “Amida”(Silent Devotion), there is both giving thanks as well as supplication. Should we assume that since these early pietists were preparing for the Amida, then their preparation time has to include even those mental exercises needed for the most demanding aspects of prayer, i.e., “Bakasha”?

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